Cutting the cable TV cord was a lot more challenging when I started writing a column about it more than two years ago. Most decent streaming devices cost $100 or more, and there was no way to get certain channels such as ESPN, HBO, and the NFL Network without a cable or satellite TV hookup.
While last year was a major turning point for streaming video, this year brought even better hardware and new streaming services. As the year winds down, here’s a look back at the best developments in cord cutting in 2016:
Best new hardware: Roku Streaming Stick
The 2016 Roku Streaming Stick is our current pick for best budget streamer, offering zippy load times, smooth animations, and innovative features such as private listening through Roku’s smartphone app. And with Roku Feed, a software feature that has greatly improved over the past year, it’s easy to keep track of the shows you enjoy the most.
Runner up: The new Amazon Fire TV Stick, which eliminates its predecessor’s most egregious performance hangups.
Most-improved streaming platform: Amazon Fire TV
In the past, the Fire TV’s biggest drawback was how it over-emphasized Amazon’s own video content, making everything else harder to reach. But thanks to a couple of significant updates, that’s no longer the case. Recommendations from Netflix and HBO now appear directly on the Fire TV home screen, and Netflix now appears in universal search results. This month’s user interface overhaul also removes a lot of menu clutter while putting an organizable list of apps near the top. With these changes, the 2015 Fire TV has become our favorite streaming box for most people.
Best new streaming service: Seeso
While most TV networks dipped their toes into streaming through skinny bundles, NBC Universal dove in with Seeso, a $4-per-month ad-free service for comedy nerds. At first, Seeso leaned heavily on existing material—Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live, Monty Python—but it has since shown confidence in its original series, with Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, Hidden America, and Cyanide & Happiness among those renewed for more seasons. Niche a la carte services could play a huge role in the future of streaming TV, and Seeso is an encouraging first take.
Runner up:DirecTV Now, for bringing even more competition to the streaming-bundle business.
Most improved streaming service: Sling TV
It’s been an eventful year for Dish Network’s Sling TV, which started the streaming-channel bundle trend in early 2015. Sling’s channel packages changed drastically in 2016, with a new $25-per-month multi-stream plan that includes regional Fox Sports networks, Viacom-owned channels, NBC-owned channels, and more. The Sling app also got a makeover, and this month Sling began testing a cloud DVR feature. With Sony’s PlayStation Vue and AT&T’s DirecTV Now competing for cord cutters’ attention, Sling is entering the new year ready to fight.
Most surprising embrace of cord cutting: The National Football League
No, the NFL still doesn’t offer an out-of-market streaming service like the other major U.S. sports leagues do. But as of this year, you can finally watch the NFL Network and NFL Redzone without a traditional cable or satellite bundle, because both channels are available through Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. The league also expanded the number of Thursday Night Football games that don ‘t require the NFL Network, from eight games to 10, with Twitter offering those games for free. Consider this another sign that sports are opening up to cord cutters.
Best new use of an over-the-air antenna: Plex DVR
Ever since Windows Media Center died, PC users have lacked a dependable way to record broadcast channels with an antenna and stream them to other devices. This year, Plex filled the void with its new DVR service, which can capture broadcasts to a PC through an HDHomeRun networked tuner. The recordings work flawlessly, offer lots of granular settings, and stream to the existing Plex apps on pretty much every device you can think of.
Runner up:Mohu Releaf, a flat-panel antenna whose base is poetically made from crushed-up cable boxes.
Best new streaming-TV feature: HDR video
While traditional cable channels are stuck on 1080p (or worse for their live feeds), streaming services are moving ahead with 4K HDR, which treats viewers to greater color detail in light and dark settings on supported televisions. Netflix enabled this eye-popping new format in April, and Amazon expanded HDR support to far more smart TVs this year. Both services support 4K HDR on Roku’s Premier+ and Ultra boxes, while Netflix also works on the Chromecast Ultra and certain Android TV set-tops.
Cord Cutting MVP: PlayStation Vue
PlayStation Vue became our favorite streaming bundle after launching nationwide in March, but the real reason it gets an award this year is for taking a principled stand against price bloat. In November, Sony dropped all Viacom channels from its lineup, noting that by doing so, it could “continue to offer the most compelling value to our fans.” In other words, keeping channels like Comedy Central and MTV in its lineup may have resulted in price hikes, particularly if Viacom was demanding more money.
Keep in mind that PlayStation Vue has expanded in other ways over time, adding channels from Disney (including ABC and ESPN) and NFL Network, and right after it dropped Viacom, it added BBC America and NBC TV. On top of that, Vue got a price cut just before its nationwide launch. With Viacom, Sony likely calculated that subscribers would be more put off by higher prices than by the loss of some channels. Those are the tough calls that streaming bundles must make to avoid becoming cable all over again.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.